2006 could be a tough year for scientific credibility. Nanotech has already come under fire with the infamous Hendrick Schoen case, but the scandals surrounding the stem cell research of South Koreaâ€™s Hwang Woo-suk do little to assuage public fears about technology.
Stem cell research has much in common with nanotech through the similar ethical dilemmas associated with some aspects of the technology, or more significantly through the number of newspaper column inches devoted to it. In common with nanotech, stem cells have been seen as a universal panacea and a solution to Alzheimerâ€™s, Parkinsonâ€™s and the key to tissue regeneration, while nanotech has been touted as a cure for cancer.
This all makes good press, although readers rarely understand exactly what the technology is and how it works, despite the plethora of public engagement groups. That is OK as long as people have an idea of the benefits of a technology, if they donâ€™t, well, we saw what happened to GMOâ€™s.
The danger comes when scientific credibility in general is called into question. The hopes of millions of people for cures for a variety of diseases are already being reported as being â€˜dashedâ€™ by publications such as the Financial Times, and various funding agencies are considering prosecuting Hwang Woo-suk for fraud or demanding their money back.
Separating the individual researcher from the technology can be difficult with superstar scientists, but when this sort of scandal happens the work still goes on in hundreds of other labs. One high profile failure doesnâ€™t kill the whole field, and just as molecular electronics is getting onto the semiconductor industry roadmap despite the Schoen fraud, stem cell research still holds great promise.
While there may be some who question the validity of science, let’s not forget that we have already seen questionable science being taken as evidence of technological dangers when it fits the agenda , whether GMO’s and monarch butterflies or buckyballs and big mouth bass..
More than anything, this case illustrates the dangers of working in an over hyped field, and the consequent pressure to deliver the expected earth shattering results, both from funding agencies and the general public, which is certainly the most worrying parallel between stem cells and nanotech.